Martin Hayes doesn’t like to stand still. The fiddle virtuoso from East Clare has made it a hallmark of his career to seek out creative ideas from beyond the musical tradition in which he was reared. A glance through his substantial back catalogue reveals a myriad of collaborations with high-calibre musicians, drawn from a musically diverse pool.
“For me it is about the beauty of melody and trying to figure out what you can do as a player to reveal that. I think if you focus on the true quality of the melody, music becomes universal.”
It’s an approach that has won him new audiences worldwide. Fans of his most recent project, The Gloaming may be dismayed to hear that there are no further dates planned for the critically acclaimed quintet that packed the National Concert Hall for twelve nights. Not that Hayes is resting on his laurels. Far from it.
His latest musical venture, the Common Ground Ensemble will launch with a pair of dates at the National Concert Hall in March. I caught up with Hayes between his radio commitments in Dublin following the first days of rehearsals of his new venture. In person Hayes is charming and eloquent with a sonorous lilt in his voice.
Hayes isn’t drawing a line under The Gloaming, however. “We knew before we recorded the last studio album that we would be taking a year off. Iarla (O’ Lionáird) was teaching at Princeton; Thomas (Bartlett) our piano player is a busy record producer in New York, and I had a bunch of things I wanted to do.”
For his latest venture, Hayes has assembled another quintet with an extraordinary breadth of expertise but each with a grounding in traditional music, the ‘common ground’ of the title. “I was working with the National Concert Hall in various ways over the years. I would often have chats with Gary Sheehan (Head of Programming at NCH). We liked to dream up projects and Gary encouraged me to bring something new to the stage. I wanted to create a band that would help me to share my own musical ideas and one that would allow me to collaborate with all kinds of musicians. Here, I’ve gathered ideas from all the experiences that I’ve had and I’ve probably put more thought and preparation into the musical choices for this than I have with any of the previous projects.”
In the twenty years since he emerged from the Tulla Céilí Band to forge his own musical path, Hayes has shown an appetite to engage with musicians stretching from the genres of jazz to the avant-garde classical. Serendipity has played a part too. In 2004, Hayes began a long collaboration with the New York classical string quartet, Brooklyn Rider, an ensemble noted for its innovative genre-bending approach.
“Colin Jacobson (leader of Brooklyn Rider) had an Irish girlfriend when he was studying at Julliard who gave him a copy of my first album. It seems that this traditional Irish fiddle playing was sonic relief from the more modern compositions he was studying. When I was living in Seattle, I was surprised to get an email sending me tickets to the YoYo Ma’s Silk Road Project. I wondered, who in that knew anything about me. It turned out to be Colin Jacobson.”
A line of communication opened and when Jacobson proposed a collaboration with Brooklyn Rider, Hayes said yes. One of the strengths of the project were the skilful arrangements framing the traditional tunes played by Hayes. One of those arrangers, Kyle Sanna, a New York based composer plays guitar in the new line up. The cutting-edge contemporary influence is guaranteed with the inclusion of cellist, Kate Ellis, director of The Crash Ensemble.
“I’ve worked with Kate on and off over the years. She is adventurous, courageous and creative.” Plucked from the Tulla Céilí Band like Hayes, at 24 years old, concertina player Brian Donnellan is the youngest member of the ensemble. “Brian is shoring up the traditional side. His grandfather and my father both started in the Tulla Ceili Band in 1946. When he and I play concertina, it is very sympathetic. He is a multi-instrumentalist and plays bazooka, keyboards and harmonium."
The 5th member of the quintet is Cormac McCarthy, a jazz pianist from Cork who leads his own 12-piece diverse ensemble, Cottage Evolution that blends Irish trad and jazz. Like Hayes, McCarthy grew up in a musical household. His father Johnny is a renowned traditional flute and fiddle player. “I was passing through Chicago and I heard Cormac playing at festival with Liz Carroll and I was curious about him. The next time I ran into him was at a Paul Dunlea Big Band concert at Cork School of Music. Cormac was playing piano. I took note and when I was ready to put this band together, I called him.”
Hayes is emphatic that the treasury of Irish melody remains central. “It is a band that is still centred on the notion of interpreting and supporting straight-ahead melodic ideas- taking the basic tunes of Irish music and allowing that to be the bedrock upon which arrangements and improvisations can be built.” To add an extra edge, Hayes has invited two guest musicians, uilleann piper, David Power from Waterford and Connemara sean nós singer, Síle Denvir to join the group for the debut concerts.
Dispersed across two continents, the players might all be on the same page musically through modern communication channels but there’s little common ground geographically between the members. When I meet Hayes, the band have just gathered for their first rehearsals in Dublin and he is quietly pleased with the progress. “I’m feeling really good. I am thrilled by how incredibly good the musicians are and by the variety of ideas and colours that have emerged. There is an elegance, common sense and tastefulness in the treasury of Irish music that is quite profound and the more I play it, the more profound it seems to me.”